As global leaders depart the Philippines after the just concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), there was one clear diplomatic winner: Philippine leader and event host Rodrigo Duterte.
The controversial leader was able to leverage the summit to smooth ties with the US while reassuring China that their recent warming trend is still firmly on track.
Much to the delight of America’s interlocutors in the region, President Donald Trump spent a full two nights in Manila after months of wavering on whether to visit the Southeast Asian country.
Though Trump made a last-minute decision to skip the East Asian Summit meeting, a multilateral forum that gathers Asean and its dialogue partners, his days-long visit nonetheless signaled Washington’s commitment to continued engagement with the region.
Asean adopted tough language against North Korea’s provocative actions and vowed to support international sanctions against the reclusive regime at a recently concluded summit attended by global and regional leaders in Manila.
The Philippines has already suspended all economic interaction with Pyongyang, while other Asean members like Malaysia and Thailand are progressively downgrading accordingly their ties.
The highlight of the summit, however, was the much-anticipated meeting between the American president and his equally controversial Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte. Both leaders indulged in a convivial hobnob but largely behaved like statesmen.
To the surprise of many, Trump and Duterte stuck to their talking points, delivered disciplined speeches, and soberly discussed bilateral and regional security concerns.
The summit addressed issues of counter-terrorism, transnational crime, protection of foreign workers’ rights, and the South China Sea disputes, though the Korean peninsula dominated proceedings.
Duterte managed to place the recently strained Philippine-US alliance on a more even keel. He held extensive discussions with Trump during their bilateral summit on November 13, with focus on repairing frayed ties through expanded cooperation in areas of common concern.
In particular, the two sides discussed avenues for deepening their already robust counter-terrorism cooperation in light of the recent liberation of the militant besieged city of Marawi, through “additional exercises, increased information sharing, and by addressing the drivers of conflict and extremism.”
America has pledged to help in reconstruction of the devastated southern city.
The two allies are also exploring deeper cooperation in the realm of counter-narcotics, with America’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) building the capacity of its Filipino counterpart, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), in interdiction of smuggled drugs, especially from mainland China.
Washington has thus signaled its willingness to support Duterte’s controversial drug war in ways that are consistent with its domestic values and laws.
Trump and Duterte’s cordial meeting effectively arrested any further hemorrhaging in bilateral ties, injecting a new element of normality into the century-old alliance.
Yet, it is unlikely that bilateral relations will ever return to their heyday during the Benigno Aquino administration, when the Philippines stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the US against China.
This is partly due to America’s inability to match China’s rising influence and economic power in the region. Duterte is intent on improving bilateral ties with Beijing, which has offered massive economic incentives to friendly neighboring states.
With the Trump administration nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, America has essentially zero economic initiatives on the table.
During his Asia tour, the American president’s obstinate emphasis on ‘fair trade’ and bilateral agreements stood in stark contrast to the Chinese leadership’s endorsement of multilateral trading regimes and a regional liberal economic order.
Beijing is backing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), which aims to reduce trade barriers among 16 trading nations of the Asia-Pacific. China is also forging ahead with rich development programs under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
China has already pledged US$7.34 billion in infrastructure investments and billions more in other aid to the Philippines alone.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang extended his stay in Manila beyond the summit to further solidify warming bilateral ties, signing major agreements as well as setting the stage for the state visit of President Xi Jinping in February.
Lured by China’s economic carrots, Duterte has refused to criticize the Asian powerhouse over its massive reclamation activities and militarization of disputed land features in the South China Sea.
To Beijing’s delight, the Filipino president insisted on resolving the issue on a bilateral basis, pushing back against efforts by external powers such as America and Japan to mediate the disputes through multilateral fora.
Far from criticizing China, Asean’s joint statement endorsed a hollow Asean-China Code of Conduct, the finalized framework which explicitly eschews dispute-settlement, sovereignty and maritime delimitation issues.
Overall, Duterte was a clear big winner at the summit, as he eagerly welcomed the courtship of all major powers, including America, China, Japan, Russia and India. The Filipino president deftly leveraged the event to effectively legitimize his leadership and present himself as a regional powerbroker.
Duterte relished the fact that no visiting global leader dared to openly criticize or confront him over his scorched earth drug war, which has reportedly claimed thousands of lives under his rule.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a press conference, suggested that he raised the issue of extrajudicial killings with the Filipino president. But the Philippine government denied any such exchange took place, with Duterte immediately criticizing Trudeau’s claim as an intolerable “insult.”
Crucially, the heads of the UN and the EU, two institutions that have been openly critical of Duterte’s human rights record, took a visibly tempered line vis-à-vis the firebrand president, who has shown little tolerance for foreign opprobrium.
But upon the summit’s conclusion, Duterte’s Philippines never looked as confident and secure. All in all, it was a crowning diplomatic event for the controversial Filipino leader.